Redemption following a 12 year break from Kona – The Amy Farrell Ironman Story
Amy Farrell joins us to chat about her Ironman story and how she redeemed herself after a 12 year break from triathlon.
She shares how she manages the balance of training between working as a teacher, being a wife and mother and managing the motel they own.
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BRAD BROWN: We head to upstate New York now to catch up with Ironman Age Grouper Amy Farrell. Amy welcome onto The Kona Edge. Thanks for joining us.
AMY FARRELL: Thank you for having me.
BRAD BROWN: Amy I’m not going to give away your age but you have been around the sport for a while. You did take a bit of a break in the middle. You’ve come back into the sport. Do you feel renewed for the last few years back in the sport, second time round?
AMY FARRELL: I actually feel amazing. I just turned 40 in May and last week I won Ironman Lake Placid and PR’d, I think by 23 minutes on the course from when I was a youngster. From when I raced at 23 or 24. So I’m definitely feeling renewed.
BRAD BROWN: It’s only triathletes who celebrate birthdays because it’s a new age group.
AMY FARRELL: Yes.
BRAD BROWN: You don’t feel 40, I’m sure. I’ve also just turned 40 and don’t feel it at all.
AMY FARRELL: Really I don’t. When I got back into Ironman in 2013/2014 I felt really good. Then by 2015 I was pretty worn out so last year I took the year off from Ironman until the end of the season when I did Ironman North Carolina. And I took most of the season relatively easy.
Less is more and secures a good Ironman result
I ended up racing a lot more than I thought I would have, but training was not too crazy. I kind of had to dial it back and I think that’s probably why I feel so good this year.
BRAD BROWN: And sometimes it’s good to take a bit of a break like that. It’s funny you say that because I’ve actually just done that. I’ve taken a year and now I’m ready to get back into it. I’ve been running, I’ve been messing around but no hard core sort of stuff and sometimes you just need to take a step back and realise what you’ve actually got and how much you do appreciate and love what you do.
AMY FARRELL: Yes, and that was it last year. The previous years I was putting in a lot of volume and I train up here alone pretty much. Swimming and cycling I’m almost always by myself and then I have 3 dogs that I run with. But that got kind of exhausting.
The excitement of going back to Kona
Doing all these races that I had put on the back burner for a few years was really fun. And racing myself into shape for North Carolina was kind of what I did and it really worked. I’m excited about triathlon this year. I’m excited going into Kona. I don’t feel fried after Lake Placid. I’m feeling ready to go.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve got quite an interesting background in the sport, if we can take a step back. Your first introduction into Ironman I believe, was in the early 2000’s where you had a couple of experiences at Kona and probably not the best if you look back and then life got in the way. You ended up having a daughter and got busy as a mom but you managed to redeem yourself on the Big Island, haven’t you?
AMY FARRELL: Yes, and that was when I got back into it, in 2012. I had taken a break because we had just bought a Motel so my summers were full cleaning motel rooms and helping guests.
Wearing your Ironman scars with pride
My first Ironman was Kona 2000 and I got blown off my bike there. Blown across the road and I still have some good scars from that. And then the next year I DNF’d so that was 2001. It was 12 years of thinking about that race before I went back to redeem myself and I think over the course of 2013 and 2014 I really did.
BRAD BROWN: It’s incredible. I always ask athletes once they’ve raced on the Big Island if they feel like they have unfinished business. But you literally got blown off the bike and the DNF. It must have been tough. Like I said, life gets in the way and things happen and timing is not right. Stewing on that for 12 years must have been pretty hard.
AMY FARRELL: Yes but I did some other things. I’m a teacher and a coach and I started running again pretty seriously in 2007, and I just missed the Olympic trials qualifier time by a minute twice in that year. I really tore my body up in that year trying to do marathons so that was how I gradually made my way back to triathlon.
Triathlon, the body’s happy place
It was where my body was happiest and uninjured. But it was a few years where I was just running around with the baby jogger and having fun with my daughter and my husband and our dogs and working like a dog, so it’s good to be back.
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure. Tell me about your introduction. Where did your introduction to triathlon happen? When was that and how did it happen?
AMY FARRELL: I grew up a runner. I did swimming in high school and there was a local family and one of their sons became a pro duathlete. There were coaches in the area and just talking to them gave me the idea, in high school, that eventually I wanted to be a triathlete. I also always loved watching Ironman Hawaii on TV and was astounded.
Pizza is the drawcard into triathlon
One of the years when they were showing what Paula Newby Fraser ate in a day, and it was like a crazy amount of pizza. Anyone who follows my social media knows I really love pizza. That sort of hooked me in. In college I was a decent runner, I qualified for nationals my senior year in the 1500m and 3000m. But I really felt athletically like I had some unfinished business so I wanted to move onto triathlon.
BRAD BROWN: Did you always know you wanted to do the long stuff?
AMY FARRELL: No not really. But then once I realised how fast you have to be as a swimmer, to do Olympic distance, I gravitated toward the long stuff.
BRAD BROWN: What is it about Ironman? I know there’s lots of non-branded Ironman races, challenge family doing some great things as well. But there’s something special about the Ironman events. For you in your mind, what is it?
The beauty of the triathlon community
AMY FARRELL: It’s funny because I’ve only done 3 different races for Ironman. I’ve done Kona four-and-a-half times. Lake Placid four times now and Ironman North Carolina.
The big thing for me is the community surrounding Kona and Lake Placid, I know them so well and Lake Placid is really fresh for me. It’s been in Lake Placid for 19 years and I think I’ve seen all of the races but the community really loves the race and no matter who the owner of that event is, the volunteers still come out and they really love supporting the athletes. And the energy in those communities is pretty unbeatable.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve been to Kona like you say, four-and-a-half times. You’ve had quite a few experiences there. You know what it takes to qualify and now to race on the island as well. What’s the secret to qualifying for the World Champs as an age grouper?
Is Ironman a have to do or want to do?
AMY FARRELL: For me, I think the biggest thing that I’ve realised over the last few years is that this is something that we get to do, instead of have to do.
I talk to so many triathletes who really seem to dread the work and dread the race. But I’ve also had some friends, and an athlete that I coached passed away, and I just realised how grateful I am to get to do this. And that triathlon is a fun thing and not taking it so seriously.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting that you say that because I think there’s lots of people around the sport; I know a guy here back home who’s struggling with cancer at the moment and he’s an Ironman. He did Ironman in South Africa earlier this year during a course of chemo.
The guy is a phenomenal guy, just really inspirational and going through a pretty rough time of it. And you look at someone like that and you realise you know what, it’s like you say, yes there’s hard work that goes into this thing but it’s a choice. It’s not a life sentence. We do it because we love doing it. Not because we have to and are getting paid to do it as professionals for instance and you have to make a living.
Remind yourself why you do this
It’s a huge mind-set shift when you make that mind-set shift, that the work then almost becomes a bit easier.
AMY FARRELL: Yes, definitely. I was just reading one of my team mates for Coeur Sports posts, who just posted something about how she was just having an awful day of training. She saw a sign and it basically reminded her of the have to versus got to, and it totally changed her attitude.
The other thing with me is I just do whatever I can to make it work. So with running a motel here, if I don’t have someone to help me clean, there were days last year when I would do 3 hours on the bike, get off and clean rooms for a few hours. Get back on the bike and then run off the bike. So my day was super long but I made it work. The racing part is fun and you want to do your best when you’re out there.
BRAD BROWN: Yes absolutely and for me race day is a celebration and reward for all the hard work you’ve put in essentially. But let’s talk about the balance and keeping life going. You sound like you’ve got a pretty busy lifestyle; you’ve got a teenage daughter and a family to take care of. You’ve got dogs.
Be flexible when the plan doesn’t go well
Tell me how you get that balance right. Is it a case of just simply planning and working that plan?
AMY FARRELL: Yes and being flexible when the plan doesn’t go well. Up here training alone, there are some days when I want to be able to be here when my daughter wakes up in the morning and I’ve got a 6 hour ride. So I’ll be on the trainer just so I’m here. Otherwise I’m 3 hours from home and I’m feeling low and it’s really hard to get back.
But definitely, the family comes first and whatever I can get done I’m advancing myself somehow. But I’ve managed to figure it all out so I can get all the work done and hopefully still have fun.
BRAD BROWN: How do you stay motivated? It’s one thing if you’ve got a crew that you’re training with and you know you need to wake up at 5am or 4:30 and there’s 4 or 5 people waiting on the street corner and you’re going to head out on the bike. But when you’re doing it on your own and the alarm clock goes off, it’s so easy to hit the snooze button and roll over. What keeps you motivated and getting up in the morning?
Family and friends are good Ironman racing motivators
AMY FARRELL: That’s a great question. I don’t know, I just love going out and seeing what I can do, and with Ironman Lake Placid that wasn’t on my schedule all year. That was kind of a late minute add on and I love to have my family at races. I had just done Ironman Xiamen and it was close enough that my parents and my sisters and nieces and nephews could be there so Lake Placid was kind of, I thought I could perform well but I really wanted to get the family out here.
Get them up here in the mountains and have a bit of a reunion. But really, I just really enjoy seeing how much better I can get. And especially at 40. This year has been so much fun because I did Boston and Brook 3 and it felt so much easier than last year. Lake Placid and Sierraq 70.3 just felt good and it’s fun working with my coach and seeing how much his program has evolved and where it’s going to get me.
Training your dog on your Ironman run
So I think those are big motivators. I also have this dog that will run all day with me and she loves half marathon pace, marathon pace so that helps. As soon as I grab a pair of running shorts or socks, the dog goes crazy until I’m out the door.
BRAD BROWN: That’s cool. What dog is it?
AMY FARRELL: Her name is Freckles and she’s a German Short Haired Pointer mixed with a Britney Spaniel and she’s just phenomenal. She can run all day.
BRAD BROWN: That is brilliant. Tell me a bit about the preparation and how you’ve changed things up from the early 2000’s and those sort of failed attempts at Kona and racing the Big Island now. Have you changed a lot from you training philosophy and how you do things?
Triathlon training with a balanced approach
AMY FARRELL: Not really. I’ve always worked with a coach. I think there are a couple of years in the late 2000 where I was coaching myself in the marathon, but I’ve always worked with a coach. I’m someone that likes to gather information and opinions from a lot of different people so I just like to learn and ask a lot of questions. Sometimes they’re newbie questions even though I’ve been around the sport for 17 or 18 years.
But just working hard, fuelling, I don’t obsess over weight or anything like that. I eat well, I eat healthy but I also try and balance it out and not restrict myself. I don’t think my approach has changed; it’s always been pretty balanced.
BRAD BROWN: Is there anything you’re struggling with now or really working hard to get better at?
AMY FARRELL: I have a little arthritis in one of my knees so I’m just trying to work on strength so I’m able to continue this for however long I want. And it seems to be working.
Different training for different age groups?
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about age grouping up and the process. People think when you hit 40 you’re going to start slowing down. For some people it does start in this age group, for some people It’s the next one. For some it’s in the early 50’s but it’s going to come.
You mentioned you’re running PR’s now, a sub-3 at Boston which is fantastic; you’re quicker than you were in your 20’s which is brilliant. The balance of working harder to get faster or working harder to maintain. Is that something that you’ve started thinking about?
AMY FARRELL: Yes, big time. When I won my age group in Kona 2014, I was still feeling pretty spry and then 2015 when I was 38 it hit. So I have added stuff like strength in and paid more attention to stuff like protein. I’ve always eaten a lot of vegetables and things like that but just recovery nutrition is super important more than it used to be.
Find things that force you to sit down when you rest
Actually sitting down. I have a pair of, I call them foamatecs, you know those recovery boots that I make myself use for 30 minutes a day so I do sit down. Sleep has never been a big thing for me. I’m just not good at it; I wish I could improve there. But the other stuff you’ve got to stay on top of things that you never had to in your 20’s.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, exactly. Generally, sleep wise, how many hours would you get on average a night?
AMY FARRELL: Probably 5-and-a-half to 7.
BRAD BROWN: On a good night. Amy tell me a little bit about the approach to racing. How many, you mentioned you raced Boston this year, you’ve done Lake Placid. How many big A-races would you technically have in a year? How many would you aim towards?
The challenge of your big triathlon races
AMY FARRELL: Probably 2 big ones. So this year I did Boston and Seroque 70.3, Lake Placid and then I’ll do probably Lake Placid 70.3 in early September and then Kona. So I don’t race a lot.
Just where we are, we’re far away. We’re 3 hours from an airport so it’s just not easy to travel to a lot of races. Last year was more races but the only a race was Ironman North Carolina.
BRAD BROWN: And as far as looking back on your triathlon career, what are you most proud of? If this was it, Kona this year being your last one, you’re not racing again, what would you say has been your biggest achievement to date?
AMY FARRELL: I think it was just last week. My Ironman PR was from a good wind day in Kona in 2013 and I broke that by 4 minutes on an extremely challenging course. I wanted to break 10 hours at Lake Placid but I hadn’t put in the kind of bike time that I usually would, so I didn’t know what was going to happen. It was just a perfect day and everything worked out and I felt wonderful. Except for the part where I had to stop and slice my sneakers open because my feet were being pinched. But I would say that or winning my age group in 2014. Because that’s a lifelong goal and that was pretty special.
Going back to see if I can do it again
BRAD BROWN: I wanted to ask you about that. Coming back, and we mentioned the redemption and I said you race well, but you’re an Ironman Age Group World Champion and that’s got a nice ring to it. What’s left to achieve? Once you’ve got that, what’s the sort of attraction to keep going back?
AMY FARRELL: To see if I can do it again. I went back the next year and I had a horrible race and the only reason I held it together was my mother was at the finish line in 2015. If she wasn’t there it would have been a much longer day. But that’s it. Coming across that line before anybody else in my age group in the world was pretty special so I’d like to do that again.
BRAD BROWN: How are you feeling? It’s still a few months out to 2017 Kona but how are you feeling from a build-up perspective? Are you feeling pretty confident that you can do it? Obviously you’re in a new age group so the odds are, I don’t want to say stacked in your favour, but they’re a lot better than when you’re in the back end of an age group so you must be feeling pretty good going into Kona 2017.
Meeting up with old team mates at Kona brings excitement
AMY FARRELL: Yes I’m pretty excited. My coach has just come up with some new stuff this year that I feel is knocking my run out the park. And cycling I’m just putting in the hours and getting those watts up. I’m excited to get to Kona. It’s nice because a lot of my team mates from Coeur Sports and the team that I’m on, High Performance Training, we’ve got a lot of team mates going. So it’s nice to go have a reunion with people around the world there.
BRAD BROWN: If I say the word Kona what do you think?
AMY FARRELL: Magical.
20:43 – 21:06 Audio skips
AMY FARRELL: When you look at people’s pictures on Alii Drive you see it in their faces. Your posture changes, just coming down that chute with all those people after such a long, hard day it’s so hot. And suddenly it’s not hot anymore. That’s pretty awesome, pretty magical.
Take a bit of time out for fun at Kona
BRAD BROWN: As far as the show that Kona is, obviously there are lots of side shows that happen during that week. How involved do you get? Are you one of those people that really soaks all of that up or do you like putting yourself into a bit of a quiet corner and it’s race week and I’m here to race, I’m not here to run down wherever, in my underpants. Are you one of those people who really just sort of zones in on race day?
AMY FARRELL: I kind of balance it. Our team likes the underpants run. So Coeur Sports has had a pretty good [22:09 – 22:11 audio skips] but otherwise I don’t spend a lot of time in the Expo. We usually stay at the end of Alii and I’m pretty chilled race week.
BRAD BROWN: Someone going to Kona for the very first time, someone who has qualified, what advice would you give them heading onto the Big Island?
Eat and drink at Kona to survive
AMY FARRELL: Stay cool. That’s it. During the last few races that I’ve done, the first year that I went back in 2013, I wore a white t-shirt for the run and I should have worn it for the bike too, but I kept it wet the whole time and it totally helped. I tend to stay covered up racing and lots of ice, lots of water over my head and follow your nutrition plan.
You need to eat, you need to drink or you’re not going to survive.
BRAD BROWN: Amy if you could go back and talk to 20 year old Amy and speak to her knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself? And is there anything you would do differently, anything you would change?
Talk yourself to the end of your Kona race
AMY FARRELL: Not really. I think I kind of planned to keep going with triathlon through my 20’s but I feel like I’m more grateful now because of the way that it went and being away from the sport. I really appreciate the communities that I’m involved in now, where maybe I wouldn’t have then. I would have told that girl on the Queen K at mile 30 in 2001 to finish the damn race. [24:05 – 24:13 audio skips]
BRAD BROWN: Is that a big regret for you in that race, calling it quits, that DNF?
AMY FARRELL: Not huge. For a while it was. But I’ve gone back and I think I’ve redeemed myself. I just felt bad because I had people out there supporting me that had spent a lot of money to come watch and that was a bummer. But I figured it out.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk newbies. We’ve got quite a few people that listen to this podcast that are just starting out in the sport. A lot of people rush into the big ones like the Ironman. Not really work their way through the Sprint, Olympic and half. What advice would you give to out and out newbies? Do you think, you know what, if you want to do an Ironman go for it straight up?
Triathlon die hards
AMY FARRELL: Some people do it. My athletes, I’ve just coached a couple of first time Iron men and women and they went through a progression before they were ready. It’s different for everybody. Some people sign up for Ironman and then go do one sprint race and then do the Ironman. So I think it’s kind of personal preference and how crazy you are.
BRAD BROWN: What are you trying to say? My first triathlon I ever entered was an Ironman.
AMY FARRELL: Well my first triathlon I did was a Kona qualifier. So I think I’m one of those crazy people. All in.
BRAD BROWN: I love it! Do you think that’s what it takes to do this? You have to be all in especially if you want to be good at it? You can’t just dip your toe in the water and expect to get the results and qualify for Kona and possibly get podiums. You have to really commit.
Commitment and dedication to make it through Kona
AMY FARRELL: If you want to do it well and not feel a lot of pain, you’ve got to do all the disciplines. You’ve got to follow a plan because for Kona, for Ironman, haphazard training is going to leave you feeling more pain on the day of the race I think, and not enjoying it as much.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Well Amy, it’s been great catching up. Thanks for your time today on The Kona Edge. I look forward to delving into the individual disciplines but we’ll save that for another day. Thanks for your time today.
AMY FARRELL: Okay, thank you.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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